The Final Frontier

Planned Parenthood's Sarah Stoesz: "The task force had no interest in looking at science or data."
Craig Lassig

On December 9, the South Dakota Task Force to Study Abortion met at the State Capitol in Pierre to discuss their findings from four days of hearings on the notoriously divisive topic. The 17-member panel--appointed by Gov. Mike Rounds and state House and Senate leaders--had heard testimony from across the ideological spectrum during the September and October sessions.

Shortly after the meeting convened, the 14 task-force members present were handed a 72-page report that was identified as containing the group's final findings. Many of the panel's members, including the four pro-choice participants on hand, had never seen the document before. It was unclear who had written it. The panel adjourned for three hours so that the report could be scrutinized.

What pro-choice members of the task force found in the document alarmed them. The authors of the proposed final report had discounted all scientific evidence and testimony supporting abortion rights. The report described the testimony of one respected pro-choice scientist as "offensive" and "eugenic in nature." By contrast, the most scientifically dubious assertions about abortion, such as that it causes breast cancer, were accepted as established fact. The report even went so far as to denigrate the need for access to abortion in cases of incest, citing evidence that 97 percent of the time such pregnancies result in healthy babies.

The document also laid out 14 legislative proposals intended to stem abortion, such as amending the state constitution to provide full legal rights to fetuses from the moment of conception. But superseding all of these proposed measures was a recommendation that the state enact a total ban on abortions.

When the task-force meeting reconvened, the four pro-choice members present attempted to bring up various objections to the report, but their efforts were repeatedly stifled. "At that point I walked out of the room and said, 'This is a sham, I don't want to be any part of this process,'" recalls Dr. Maria Bell, a Sioux Falls oncologist who was vice chair of the task force. The three other task-force members who supported reproductive rights joined her.

After their departure, the remaining committee members passed a resolution supporting the report with just one dissenting vote.


Anti-abortion activists reaped their reward last month when South Dakota legislators overwhelmingly passed a comprehensive ban on abortion, a direct challenge to the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that established the constitutionality of surgical contraception. The only exception noted in the South Dakota law is in cases where a pregnant woman's life is threatened. In other words, abortion in cases of rape, incest, or health complications that are not life-threatening would be prohibited. Governor Rounds signed the bill Monday, March 6. It will go into affect on July 1.

If so, the measure is sure to set off the latest round of the abortion battle, with implications far beyond South Dakota. Similar measures have been floating around other states, for starters. And the movement that came to fruition in Pierre will be fought by local Planned Parenthood offices, which offers reproductive education and health services in the Dakotas as well as Minnesota.

Pro-choicers now believe the task force was designed simply to provide a veneer of legitimacy to an attack on abortion rights and sex education that has been building for years. "This is not something that was dreamt up overnight," says Bell. "This is a very organized, very well funded group of individuals that have a lot of political power in our state." An anonymous donor, for instance, has pledged $1 million to pay for any legal challenges to the abortion ban, insuring that South Dakota doesn't have to foot the bill.

"It was a travesty," says Sarah Stoesz, president of Planned Parenthood Minnesota-South Dakota-North Dakota. "The task force had no interest in looking at science or data. Anything that was empirically derived was banned from the room. It was all about ideology and religious dogma."

Even the task force's chair, Dr. Marty Allison, a pro-life advocate, determined that the process was a farce. She cast the lone dissenting vote against adopting the report. ''The final report was authored by a few people on the task force, and it is less than completely objective and factual," she told reporters at the time. "It is biased and opinionated."

It's tempting to dismiss South Dakota as a cultural backwater, one with a population roughly a quarter of the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area. After all, only about 800 of the 1.3 million abortions performed across the county each year take place in South Dakota. But the state's decision to ban abortion is not an anomaly. Legislators in Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee, Missouri, West Virginia, and Oklahoma have recently proposed similar measures. And in many states, including Minnesota, the restrictions and bureaucratic hurdles surrounding abortion have grown increasingly stringent in recent years.

"What has been frustrating to us is our inability to get the rest of the country focused on this," says Stoesz. "People on the coasts, even in Minneapolis, tend to think of South Dakota as flyover land. They marginalize it; they don't see it as relevant."

Reproductive rights advocates are now contemplating how to proceed in battling the abortion ban. Planned Parenthood will almost certainly file a lawsuit seeking an injunction against implementation of the law. And given that abortion is a legally established, constitutionally protected right, as determined by the U.S. Supreme Court, they will almost certainly be successful. "We will be upheld every step of the way and then we will get to the Supreme Court, and the rubber will meet the road that day," Stoesz predicts. "And it's all because of a wind that started to blow in South Dakota."

Reproductive rights supporters are also contemplating a more novel path of resistance. Under South Dakota's state constitution, any law that's enacted can be challenged via voter referendum. To put the ban on the ballot, abortion rights supporters would need to gather 16,728 signatures--equivalent to 5 percent of the vote count in the state's last gubernatorial election--within 90 days of the legislative session adjourning (currently slated for March 20). Residents would then have the chance to vote the abortion law up or down in November.

"There is a groundswell of support in South Dakota for putting this thing on the ballot in November," says Kate Looby, Planned Parenthood's South Dakota director.

This would be a risky path, however, given the decidedly anti-abortion voting patterns of South Dakota voters in recent history. Rep. Roger Hunt, one of the primary architects of the abortion ban, doesn't believe abortion rights advocates will follow through on the ballot initiative. "Planned Parenthood has always been very careful about taking things into court under terms and conditions that are going to favor them," he says. "This is a pro-life state. We've done the polling."

Anti-abortion activists are banking on recent changes on the Supreme Court--with the addition of conservative justices Samuel Alito and John Roberts--to tip the balance toward overturning Roe v. Wade. But Planned Parenthood and other abortion rights supporters hope that the ban--particularly the failure to grant exceptions in cases of rape and incest--will galvanize the public.

"What they have done is given us the opportunity to run an up-and-up battle before the voters of the state and say, 'Do you really want to endorse this extreme position?'" notes Jim Robinson, a veteran South Dakota Democratic pollster and political consultant. "I think this will happen. There will be an initiative and there will be a battle."

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